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Some people tell me there are not enough descriptions in my book, some say there are too much. How do you know how much detail is enough?

Is there like a rule of thumb for these things?

Do I leave most of it to the reader's imagination, or do I need to be much more specific?

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Maybe what both audiences are telling you is that your descriptions are unsatisfying. That would explain why there is both "too much," and also "not enough." (What do you tell people who ask you if you're getting enough to eat, when the food is terrible?) Personally, I know that the descriptions are the weakest part of my own writing. Here are some things I've done that have helped improve them:

  1. Spend more time observing things visually. We write best the things we love and the things we pay attention to, which is why I'm great with dialog and terrible with descriptions. If you spend some quality time intensely and closely observing scenes and settings in real life, it will help your written descriptions become more vivid and less generic.

  2. Remember that your descriptions can (and should!) do a lot of extra work. They shouldn't just be things you throw in to keep people appeased. The sky looks a lot different when you're depressed than when you're happy, so make sure your descriptions convey hints at your characters' mental and emotional states. The knife lying on the table isn't just background scenery, it's the future murder weapon --there's a lot of clues and foreshadowing, subtle and blatant you can hide in the descriptions. Finally, there's a story behind that stain on the wallpaper --go ahead and tell it.

I suspect if you improve your descriptions, both your audiences will suddenly start finding there is exactly the right amount of them in your book.

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Is there like a rule of thumb for these things?

Three!

I will take "rule of thumb" as meaning a rough measure that does not apply in all situations.

It is actually hard for people to keep very many details in their mind, so when describing a building or room, for example, pick three important details (or sentences) that capture the atmosphere of the room.

Here is Harry Potter, in Diagon Alley, coming to the wand shop. for the outside:

(1) The last shop was narrow and shabby.
(2) Peeling gold letters over the door read Ollivanders: Maker of Fine Wands since 382 B.C.
(3) A single wand lay on a faded purple cushion in the dusty window.

For the inside of the shop:

(1) It was a tiny place, except for a single spindly chair that Hagrid sat on to wait.
(2) Harry felt strangely as though he had entered a very strange library; he swallowed a lot of new questions that had just occurred to him and looked instead at the thousands of narrow boxes piled neatly right up to the ceiling.
(-) For some reason, the back of his neck prickled.
(3) The very dust and silence in here seemed to tingle with some secret magic.

What is the color of the walls? What kind of floor is it? Patterned? Wood? Stone tile? Dirt? How is the lighting done? What does it smell like? What color are the 'narrow boxes'?

You can overwhelm the reader with detail; Rowling tends to pick three images and describe them, though they may have a few combos in a sentence. From the outside, she doesn't describe the wand on the pillow; the wand remains generic (even though we learn here that the type of wood and length matter in a wand). But Rowling mentions the window is dusty and the purple pillow is faded.

'Narrow and shabby' is two bits of information, but we are not counting adjectives, we are counting concepts, and she is trying to give you a sense of this shop being 24 centuries old.

The same thing applies to appearances: Pick three "most important" images (or other senses) that set that appearance apart, and describe them. Of course, if it is really one very fetching thing, you can have more impact describing that one thing: The girl with kaleidoscope eyes.

Your job is to guide the reader's imagination, and in us humans, it is hard to keep track of very many details in something new that we see. (Something we've seen dozens of times is different: I can tell you a dozen details about the front of my house, or dozen things about why my living room is arranged the way it is and how the open spaces are used. But generally you are describing scenes and things new to the reader, so don't overload them.)

How do you know how much detail is enough?

So Three is an average, I'd say one to four is enough, depending on their relative impact. You want enough to constrain the reader's imagination to be fairly close to your own, but in doing that, avoid repetition in the abstract sense: Decide what an image evokes in the reader, and avoid describing other elements that evoke the same sense or feeling. (Rowling doubles up a few times, I think).

You don't have to cover all the senses, but you should at least consider them to see if they are unusual or telling. (smell or temperature or air quality or movement, etc). Otherwise, sight and sound and emotional impression are enough.

Remember, you want what you describe to have consequences in the mind and feelings of the character; they interpret what they detect with their senses. This is another way to pick the details; don't take anything the character would not notice: If the flooring is exactly what Harry would expect, we need not mention it; because it doesn't make the wand shop stand apart from any other shop.

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Readers are excellent finding problems, but terrible at diagnosing them

If your readers are complaining about something, then something is almost certainly wrong with your descriptions. But it may not be exactly the thing they are complaining about.

Now, armchair editors from across the internet who haven't even seen your writing are even worse, but I'm going to give it a shot anyways.

I suspect that you have a focus problem.

I can't find any good examples at the moment, but if you've ever seen a side by side comparison of a picture where only the subject is in focus and a picture of the same scene taken with a broad focus, the difference is striking. In a well-focused picture your eye is immediately drawn to the subject. The focus shows the reader how they are supposed to be taking in the picture, and the viewer feels that they understand it better than if all parts of the image were of equal clarity.

Focus applies to written descriptions as well. The order in which things are described, how long the story spends describing each thing, and what sorts of words they use in the description all play a part. Noir is a classic example. Take a look at how much time is spent describing the beautiful woman who walks into the detective's office, compared to the descriptions other characters get throughout the novel. Similarly, the male leads of romance novels typically get extremely detailed descriptions as well.

Focus is more than just attention

Descriptions shouldn't just tell the reader what the character is seeing, but how the character feels about it. A character in the kitchen of a master chef might describe a knife as "clean, bright, and keen", while a character being menaced by the chef in a back alley might describe the same knife as "long, pointy, and sharp."

By controlling what focus is given to each description, the story tells the readers what parts of the scene are important to the viewpoint character, which in turn tells them what they need to remember about the scene.

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  • +1 for mentioning how memorable something should be. And that evocative "descriptions" are often a character's interior thought-life rather than their surroundings. – MarkHu Mar 8 '18 at 20:03
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Are the people who are giving you feedback pointing to the exact same descriptions? Maybe your descriptions are spotty?

Rule of thumb: My personal rule of thumb, I never like more than 1 adjective/adverb for any description.

Better yet is to make each description serve a second purpose. That way it feels beefier (like a more full description) without being a laundry list.

  1. 'A windy day' is one thing. 'Another windy day, and this time he remembered to pull his jacket out' is another.

This takes the description and gives it a reaction within the story.

  1. 'Brown hair' is one thing. 'Brown hair that matched neither his father's nor mother's' is quite something else.

Hints of a backstory there...

  1. 'Gravel road' is one thing. But, 'The gravel crunched under his feet. "dialog"' is another

It's now providing setting and a dialog action tag.

  1. 'The dappled, green and yellow light was everywhere.' <- three adjectives, clunky. Compare that to: 'Light, green and yellow, filtered through the leaves.' <- Same info, dappled is now expressed as an action of the light, and provides a stronger verb than 'was', and the adjectives are reduced to 2. I like the second option here, better.

You can play with your descriptions to address a few writing issues. In general, double duty on the wording goes a long way for the reading enjoyment, at least in my opinion.


Edit: I think what you want is "the telling detail." Here's another link.

I think you want the one specific thing that puts the reader where you want them to be.

I could just vaguely describe a forest in a way that sets the desired mood and leave most to the reader's imagination, or do I need to describe the colors, textures, desnity, etc. etc.

I would never describe the colors, textures, density - But I might say that I was in a forest straight out of Hansel and Gretel.

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  • Thank you for answering. However, I'm more concerned with the quantity. I was trying to ask about, for example, whether I could just vaguely describe a forest in a way that sets the desired mood and leave most to the reader's imagination, or do I need to describe the colors, textures, desnity, etc. etc. – Klara Raškaj Mar 7 '18 at 21:19
  • @KlaraRaškaj - that depends entirely on your story, the scene, the genre and myriad other factors. There is no one-size-fits all approach or magical formula that will translate into a well-written story. – user18397 Mar 7 '18 at 23:13
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Rate the people giving you feedback on a personal scale of "How close are they to my target audience?"

Not everyone will be equally close to your target audience. If you aim to write a book for people that are probably in their early twenties, mostly read sci-fi and love complicated plots you might want to rate the answers from people with a focus on sci-fi different from people who sometimes read sci-fi, but mostly urban-fantasy romance. Maybe the sci-fi "sci-fi" person will tell you that there is enough descriptions and the "urban fantasy" person will tell you that you should focus more on the appearance of your characters - but as the latter is farther away from your target audience you should not immediately jump at that feedback.

Try to make a list that defines your "ideal target audience" and then rate the people that give you feedback on a scale of "not very close", "medium" and "very close" for each point. Where they differ from your target and what feedback they give you can also play an important role - appearances might be more important in urban fantasy then in sci-fi for example.

This approach allows you to then note their feedback and assign tags to the feedback, such as "Do immediately - target audience doesn't like it", "Collect and do together with other stuff in this category as a slightly bigger re-write - target audience is neutral towards this and non-target audience doesn't like it" and "Remember if I ever come across this for some other reason and it's not too much work then - target audience doesn't care and non-target audience is neutral".

These are over-simplified categories and you will never be completely accurate - it's just a tool to give you an idea of which feedback is more relevant to you and your situation so that you don't get lost in the feedback from people that are not as close to your target audience as others. You shouldn't make this ranking public of course, it's enough to keep it as a personal (mental) note. If you know the people more closely you can even assign extra categories like "I know he hates certain types of characters, but this character has to be like it - any feedback regarding this character can more or less be ignored unless it's obviously really, really bad".

The more you know about the people giving you feedback the better.

You (or your publisher) is the final arbiter

If you still don't know what to do because multiple different ways come from relevant people and you don't have a publisher who wants to have a say in the final matter then there really is only one person you can trust - you.

If you can't decide - throw a coin

There is a little trick I sometimes use: Assign one way to the "Heads" side of a coin, the other to the "Tails" site of the coin and throw it. Depending on which side comes up you will feel something. Maybe you don't like the result - then you know that you shouldn't do that. Maybe you like it - then your subconciousness wants to tell you to do that. Maybe it feels empty - then you don't care and should do what is the least amount of work so that you can continue with the important parts and come back to this obviously less dramatic problem later.

There is no rule of thumb

The rule of thumb depends on your target audience, your genre, your publisher, your personal goal, your writing style and on the person giving you the advice and feedback - and probably on at least a dozen more things.

There is no general rule of thumb.

If you think "I already have so much description, why should I add more?" it's probably too much already, if you think "She may have a point..." it's probably not enough and if you think "Who cares?" then it doesn't matter for what you are trying to achieve.

We would need to read your book

Every feedback needs to be tailored specifically for the work in question. In your case we would need to read your entire book to tell you what we think - which is the same situation you are in currently where some people will tell you that it's too much and others will tell you it's not enough.

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  • Thank you for the answer, but I was looking more for something like a "rule of thumb". – Klara Raškaj Mar 7 '18 at 21:06
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    @KlaraRaškaj The rule of thumb depends on your target audience, your genre, your publisher, your personal goal, your writing style and on the person giving you the advice and feedback - and probably on at least a dozen more things. There is no general rule of thumb. If you think "I already have so much description, why should I add more?" it's probably too much already, if you think "She may have a point..." it's probably not enough and if you think "Who cares?" then it doesn't matter for what you are trying to achieve. – Secespitus Mar 7 '18 at 21:15
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Some people tell me there are not enough descriptions in my book, some say there are too much.

Maybe their preferences are dissimilar. However, I'll assume something else: that they're criticisms are of different scenes that shouldn't be described in the same detail. Maybe you know better, but hear me out. Hopefully, reviewing your draft in light of the points below will give you some, "Ah, that's what it needs" insights.

Some scenes need a lot of description so you can see how an environment unfamiliar to a character makes them feel, or what they observe (since that can tell you something about them as an individual), or because specific details create a mood, contrast with another place or time or are needed later.

On the other hand, some scenes need less description because the reader deserves to visualise it themselves, or because what matters is characters' activities or turmoil, not the lace on the curtains.

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It changes from person to person. Not everyone expects the same amount of description from your work.

We have a very well known writer here (not sure of the name but it should be Yaşar Kemal) and his books contain very long descriptions but they're loved by many nonetheless. I once read a book of his where he described a drape... In three pages. Three pages.

You could be asking, what could he have to say about a drape for three pages, but that drape had a story of its own. The detail work on it, the stuff that has happened to it, the things it had to tell you...

Anyway, I believe what you deem to be enough is what is actually enough.

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